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THE FIRST SURVEY IN THE DISMAL SWAMP

by William Byrd

 

SOME borderstoohad a great mind to know where the line would come outbeing for the most part apprehensive lest their lands should be taken intoVirginia. In that case they must have submitted to some sort of order andgovernment; whereasin North Carolinaevery one does what seems best in hisown eyes. There were some good women that brought their children to be baptizedbut brought no capons along with them to make the solemnity cheerful. In themean time it was strange that none came to be married in such a multitudeif ithad only been for the novelty of having their hands joined by one in holy orders.Yet so it wasthat though our chaplain christened above an hundredhe did notmarry so much as one couple during the whole expedition. But marriage isreckoned a lay contract in Carolinaas I said beforeand a country justice cantie the fatal knot thereas fast as an archbishop.

None of our visitors couldhowevertell us any news of the surveyorsnorindeed was it possible any of them should at that timethey being stilllaboring in the midst of the Dismal.

It seems they were able to carry the line this day no further than one mileand sixty-one polesand that whole distance was through a miry cedar bogwherethe ground trembled under their feet most frightfully. In many placestootheir passage was retarded by a great number of fallen treesthat lay horsingupon one another.

Though many circumstances concurred to make this an unwholesome situationyet the poor men had no time to be sicknor can one conceive a more calamitouscase than it would have been to be laid up in that uncomfortable quagmire. Neverwere patients more tractableor willing to take physicthan these honestfellows; but it was from a dread of laying their bones in a bog that would spewthem up again. That consideration also put them upon more caution about theirlodging.

They first covered the ground with square pieces of cypress barkwhich nowin the springthey could easily slip off the tree for that purpose. On thisthey spread their bedding; but unhappily the weight and warmth of their bodiesmade the water rise up betwixt the joints of the barkto their greatinconvenienceThus they lay not only moistbut also exceedingly coldbecausetheir fires were continually going out. For no sooner was the trash upon thesurface burnt awaybut immediately the fire was extinguished by the moisture ofthe soilinsomuch that it was great part of the sentinel's business to rekindleit again in a fresh placeevery quarter of an hour. Nor could they indeed dotheir duty betterbecause cold was the only enemy they had to guard against ina miserable morasswhere nothing can inhabit.

We could get no tidings yet of our brave adventurersnotwithstanding wedispatched men to the likeliest stations to inquire after them. They were stillscuffling in the mireand could not possibly forward the line this whole daymore than one mile and sixty-four chains. Every step of this day's work wasthrough a cedar bogwhere the trees were somewhat smaller and grew more into athicket It was now a great misfortune to the men to find their provisions growless as their labor grew greater; they were all forced to come to shortallowanceand consequently to work hard without filling their bellies. Thoughthis was very severe upon English stomachsyet the people were so far frombeing discomfited at itthat they still kept up their good-humorand merrilytold a young fellow in the companywho looked very plump and wholesomethat hemust expect to go first to potif matters should come to extremity.

This was only said by way of jestyet it made him thoughtful in earnest.Howeverfor the present he returned them a very civil answerletting them knowthatdead or alivehe should be glad to be useful to such worthy good friends.Butafter allthis humorous saying had one very good effectfor that younkerwho before was a little inclined by his constitution to be lazygrew on asudden extremely industriousthat so there might be less occasion to carbonadehim for the good of his fellow-travelers....

The surveyors and their attendants began now in good earnest to be alarmedwith apprehensions of faminenor could they forbear looking with some sort ofappetite upon a dog that had been the faithful companion of their travels.

Their provisions were now near exhausted. They had this morning made the lastdistributionthat so each might husband his small pittance as he pleased. Nowit was that the fresh colored young man began to tremble every joint of himhaving dreamedthe night beforethat the Indians were about to barbecue himover live coals.

The prospect of famine determined the peopleat lastwith one consenttoabandon the line for the presentwhich advanced but slowlyand make the bestof their way to firm land. Accordingly they sat off very earlyandby the helpof the compass which they carried along with themsteered a direct westerlycourse. They marched from morning till nightand computed their journey toamount to about four mileswhich was a great wayconsidering the difficultiesof the ground. It was all along a cedar-swampso dirty and perplexedthat ifthey had not traveled for their livesthey could not have reached so far.

On their way they espied a turkey-buzzardthat flew prodigeously high to getabove the noisome exhalations that ascend from that filthy place. This they werewilling to understand as a good omenaccording to the superstition of theancientswho had great faith in the flight of vultures. Howeverafter all thistedious journeythey could yet discover no end of their toilwhich made themvery pensiveespecially after they had eat the last morsel of their provisions.But to their unspeakable comfortwhen all was hushed in the eveningthey heardthe cattle lowand the dogs barkvery distinctlywhichto men in thatdistresswas more delightful music than Faustina or Farinelli could have made.In the mean time the commissioners could get no news of them from any of theirvisitorswho assembled from every point of the compass.

However long we might think the timeyet we were cautious of showing ouruneasinessfor fear of mortifying our landlord. He had done his best for usand therefore we were unwilling he should think us dissatisfied with ourentertainment. In the midst of our concernwe were most agreeably surprisedjust after dinnerwith the news that the Dismalites were all safe. Theseblessed tidings were brought to us by Mr. Swanthe Carolina surveyorwho cameto us in a very tattered condition.

After very short salutationswe got about him as if he had been a Hottentotand began to inquire into his adventures. He gave us a detail of theiruncomfortable voyage through the Dismaland told usparticularlythey hadpursued their journey early that morningencouraged bythe good omen of seeingthe crows fly over their heads; thatafter an hour's march over very rottengroundtheyon a suddenbegan to find themselves among tall pinesthat grewin the waterwhich in many places was knee-deep. This pine swampinto whichthat of Coropeak drained itselfextended near a mile in breadth; and though itwas exceedingly wetyet it was much harder at bottom than the rest of the swamp;that about ten in the morning they recovered firm landwhich they embraced withas much pleasure as shipwrecked wretches do the shore.

After these honest adventurers had congratulated each other's deliverancetheir first inquiry was for a good housewhere they might satisfy theimportunity of their stomachs. Their good genius directed them to Mr. Brinkley'swho dwells a little to the southward of the line. This man began immediately tobe very inquisitivebut they declared they had no spirits to answer questionstill after dinner.

"But praygentlemen" said he"answer me one questionatleast: what shall we get for your dinner?" To which they replied"Nomatter whatprovided it be but enough." He kindly supplied their wants assoon as possibleand bythe strength of that refreshment they made a shift tocome to us in the eveningto tell their own story. They all looked very thinand as ragged as the Gibeonite ambassadors did in the days of yore. Oursurveyors told us they had measured ten miles in the Dismaland computed thedistance they had marched since to amount to about five moreso they made thewhole breadth to be fifteen miles in all.

The End